I want to begin by clearly stating that I am a strong supporter of voting ‘yes’ to the upcoming Referendum about the Voice to Parliament. I support the ‘yes’ vote and have not seen an argument that has convinced me to vote otherwise – in fact, I think most arguments against the ‘yes’ vote cannot be justified.

However, the purpose of opinion piece is different – I am interested in understanding why Australians tend to resist referendums. Only eight of 44 referendums have been successful – and this is something that we need to unpack.

There are three reasons why Australians are likely to vote against the proposed referendum: we are innately conservative, in recent times we exhibit less and less trust towards experts and we are tired of change.

We are a conservative lot.

Despite the national image that we like to portray ourselves as being carefree and bold, the truth is that we tend to prefer conservative paths.

This explains why the then opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, pitched himself as being about ‘reform’ and ‘renewal’ not revolution. The Albanese team understood that Australians do not like change happening too quickly.

While there are many reasons for this, I would like to point out two.

As an immigrant nation, many of our citizens came to Australia because of our political, social, and economic stability the country offers. If you migrated to Australia from one of the many global conflict zones, or experienced life during an economic crisis, then the adage of, ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ rings true.

The second is our Anglo roots. Wave after wave of migrant of migrant that came to Australia until the end of the White Australia Policy wanted Australia to be a European outpost. Regardless of the historical implications, this involved mimicking and holding onto ‘European’ traditions even when they changed. This made people feel more closely connected to their ‘home’ nations.

Many of us saw this play out with our own parents who held onto traditions that long since ceased in Greece making them ‘more Greek than Greeks in Greece’.

This type of environment means that change, particularly changing a constitution that has proved remarkably stable, is not something people are likely to be comfortable with.

Decline of trust in experts – including so called ‘elites.’

Despite coming out of the Covid19 pandemic relatively unscathed, trust levels towards experts, governments and expert systems continue to decline.

Various surveys have found that Australians have grown more distrusting of our major institutions and less tolerant of each other. There are various reasons for this but include economic instability, global conflict and heightened personal fears.

Edelman/BBS Communications Group found that in its 2023 Trust Barometer that a rapid erosion of trust and a fear that we are growing more polarised. The report found that:

45 per cent of Australians believe society is more divided today than in the past, and 61 per cent agreed the lack of civility and mutual respect today is the worst they have ever seen. Most Aussies are fearful of job loss (83 per cent), inflation (69 per cent), climate change (61 per cent) and food shortage (54 per cent), and less than a third believe they will be better off in five years.

In this environment, no matter who says what, people simply do not trust the experts that say, ‘you have nothing to worry about.’ Again, this is likely to lead to resistance when it comes to this referendum.

Change fatigue

The third reason is that we are all struggling with change: from the rise of artificial intelligence, changing social and cultural expectations, global pandemic, and disruptive technology more generally – not to mention the global conflicts mentioned above. The world feels like it is incredibly unstable and changing at a pace that is exhausting.

While many of us are comfortable with change, and some of us benefit from it, most Australians have found the last few years simply exhausting. Quite simply, the Australian population is experiencing a sense of change fatigue – and as a result, many may simply not ready to support this proposal now.

It is sad…

Over the last few years, we have seen a significant change in our attitude to our historical legacy. When I was a teenager going to the football, no one ever discussed an ‘Indigenous Round,’ we never saw Indigenous Jersey, or Acknowledge of Country.

None of these solve the historical injustices but as a nation, Australia has started to come to grips with a violent, discriminatory, and colonial past while at the same time recognising the incredible history of our First Nations people.

We used to hide the Aboriginal heritage and today most of us celebrate it. The likelihood that Australians will vote no is sad for two significant reasons. The first is that a ‘no’ vote will halt this momentum. These significant cultural developments will now seem tokenistic and may well lose the broad support they have. Secondly, it is a sad reflection of our politics. The fact that the two major parties could not agree on something this significant and has seen one of Australia’s once again become political football.

Forget finger pointing and who is to blame. This debate should have been too significant to become a victim of the culture wars. The fact that it has now became split (mostly) along party lines is a failing that we should all wear responsibility for.

And that should make us all sad.

Professor James Arvanitakis, is the Director of the Forrest Research Foundation in Perth, Western Australia, he was formerly the Pro Vice Chancellor or Engagement and Advancement at Western Sydney University, and Executive Director of Fulbright Australia.